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Depletion - June 19

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Multinationals eye up lithium reserves beneath Bolivia's salt flats

Rory Carroll and Andres Schipani, Guardian
Metal deposits may be key to green car revolution but government in La Paz yet to agree deal
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Stand in the middle of Salar de Uyuni, the world's greatest salt desert, and the first word that springs to mind is ­nothing. As far as the eye can see, ­nothing. Not a shrub or tree, not a hill or valley, just an endless expanse of white.

This salt flat in Bolivia, the landlocked heart of South America, is a harsh and eerie landscape, perhaps the closest thing nature has to a void. From the Incas to the present day, humanity has made little impression here.

But that may be about to change. Dig down and you find brine – water saturated with salt – rich in deposits of lithium, the lightest metal.

As the invention of the pneumatic tyre turned rubber into a precious commodity in the 19th century, the world's tilt towards greener energy is expected to do the same for lithium in the 21st. For years, tiny amounts have been used in laptops, BlackBerrys and other devices, but now its main use is expected to be in batteries for electric cars, which campaigners, manufacturers and governments say will – or should – replace petrol and diesel vehicles.

For Bolivia, this is good news. It is thought to possess 5.4m tonnes of lithium, half the world's supply.
(18 June 2009)



Will fertiliser scarcity harm farm economy?

Nick Smith, Stuff (New Zealand)
... All farms need fertiliser, but hilly, water-starved country like Te Pohue, which struggles to achieve the output of the lush lowland paddocks of Southland, Waikato and Taranaki, needs the stuff more than most.

Wills won't fertilise his fields this year. At $392 a tonne for superphosphate, it's unaffordable. To put that in perspective, in April last year it was $261 a tonne. For Wills, it's uneconomic to fertilise until superphosphate drops below $300.

He freely acknowledges he's running a risk. If Wills skips fertilisation for longer than one or two years, he risks significant damage to his fields, the engine room of his farm. Most other farmers around the country, according to agricultural analysts, are making similarly hard decisions.

Driving the price rises is resource scarcity, global demand for food (particularly among the rising Asian middle class) and growing thirst for alternative energy sources. Increased production demands greater fertiliser use.

Before the financial crisis, buying a tonne of fertiliser ingredient diammonium phosphate (DAP) would set you back more than an ounce of gold. DAP, which peaked at more than US$1200, and urea prices have since fallen but this has yet to feed through into the cost of market fertiliser. Manufacturers have scaled back production, stabilising prices, but potash is still at elevated levels, according to the Rabobank Agribusiness Review.

Wills may get his wish of superphosphate for less than $300 a tonne next year, but that price is unlikely to stay low in the medium to long term. Demand, strangled by high prices and financial distress, may be manageable but scarcity isn't.

A fascinating but alarmist piece in Scientific American by David Vacari, a US agricultural scientist, points to a looming crisis in production of phosphate, which comprises about 12 per cent of every bag of fertiliser. Vacari writes like a true Green believer, but the bare bones of his narrative is worth a read and justifies his alarmist language.
(19 June 2009)
The Scientific American article is: Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply by David A. Vaccari.



Pressure over land rights to increase, conference told

Paul Schliesmann, The Kingston Whig-Standard (Ontario)
As metals and resources become more precious, First Nations people will come under increasing pressure to relinquish their lands to mining operations, participants at a Queen's University conference were told yesterday.

"The First Nations are on lands everybody's attracted to," said Jason Wilson, an Ojibwe from Rainy River who works for the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada. "You're going to be flooded with activity."

He said it was important that aboriginal communities become acquainted with upcoming changes to Ontario's Mining Act and also realize the potential economic advantages to their people.

"That's what it's all about -- creating jobs," said Wilson. "We have to start to put a vision forward for young people."

The two-day conference, "Mineral Resources and Aboriginal Lands," was co-hosted by the Queen's School of Policy Studies and the First Nations Technical Institute.

One of the keynote speakers was provincial Ministry of Northern Development and Mines deputy minister Kevin Costante.

"Much of the mining activity is taking place on First Nations land," he said.

Once approved, Costante said, the updated Mining Act should help deter incidents like the 2007 and 2008 standoffs at a proposed uranium mining operation near Sharbot Lake.

"It's to avoid situations like that," said Costante. "Nothing's ever perfect, but I think it will solve a lot of it. It's not going to work for mining companies if they don't pay attention. Good for the First Nations. They got everybody's attention."

... Lovelace acknowledged that economic activity from mining can be important to aboriginal communities.

"We all drive automobiles. We all use petroleum-based products," he said. "But it's the way in which the mining is done. We have hit a point in time where we're at peak everything. Peak copper. Peak gold. Peak oil. The desire to exploit them is going to be much greater."
(18 June 2009)

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